Note: This piece currently is a work-in-process
The first ever Saturn rolled off the assembly line 28 years ago this week. Not many will mark the occasion.
Ford Motor Company’s Edsel of the late 1950s is widely accepted to be the automobile industry’s greatest disaster. Indeed, at an inflation adjusted loss of $3 billion, it was a hefty blow to Ford’s bottom line, as well as to its ego. But rival General Motors lost many times that amount on Saturn, an ambitious project aimed at finally cracking the code for building a profitable small car. So why after six decades do we still remember the Edsel, while Saturn, gone just nine short years ago, is all but forgotten? Possibly because the highly publicized and much anticipated Edsel became a calamity of miscalculations and errors that ended in a sensational launch pad explosion. It was a spectacle that, as long as you weren’t an Edsel employee, dealer or owner, was rather amusing to watch. Saturn, on the other hand, unfolded like a thousand-page tragic Russian novel, or an endless PowerPoint presentation on hope unfulfilled. While Edsel gave Ford a swift kick in the ass, Saturn gave General Motors a colonoscopy with no anesthesia. the story was as painful to watch as it is to tell.
In 1982 General Motor’s chairman Roger Smith launched the Saturn Project, a $5 billion investment in what he called A New Kind of Car Company. Saturn's mission was nothing less than to transform from within the way GM designed, built and sold automobiles, to carry General Motors into the next century and beyond.
Saturn's cars would be developed outside GM’s bureaucratic solos of authority - the ones that enhanced the power of senior executives but slowed the design process and deadened innovation.
Saturn’s labor agreement - and indeed the orgainzation's whole culture - called for collaboration and flexibility among managers and workers not seen in any other unionized American auto plant.
Saturn would sell cars differently, too. There would be no haggling over price - a concept previously unheard of in the industry. A sharp negotiator could no longer squeeze out a bargain, but nor could a lousy one be squeezed. The stress was removed from the car-buying process. At Saturn, the customer experience came first.
Saturn's ad agency, Hal Riney & Associates of San Francisco, created a revolutionary ad campaign that focused not so much on the cars of Saturn, but its factory workers, its sales people, and most of all, its customers. Unlike any car company before it or since, Saturn was portrayed as a sum of its people. Each year, Saturn sponsored a customer jamboree at the sight of its Spring Hill, Tennessee plant. Owners from all over the country gathered along with line workers and executives to meet, play and party. Saturn was a family.
It took eight years of hard work by talented managers, innovative labor leaders, and creative marketers to bring it all together. Saturn launched on July 31, 1990. In just their third year on the market, they were selling a quarter million cars a year, and doing so by winning over enthusiastic import-oriented customers who would never have otherwise considered a GM product.
Team Saturn had done everything asked of it. Everything, that is, except to understand General Motors' entrenched bureaucracy, and its deeply ingrained imperative to not change.
On Jult 30, 1990 Roger Smith drove the first Saturn off its brand new assembly line. He retired the next day.
And so began Saturn's slow motion drive to death.
Without it’s champion there was no one in the C-Suit to protect Saturn from the petty bureaucrats of the intransigent corporate monolith. Three years after Saturn's liftoff, despite its immediate sales success, new investment in the upstart brand was cut off. Starved of new product, Saturn was pushed to the side where it slowly bled cash and customers.
Having had immense success wooing back customers who had abandonned GM in droves for the import bands, Saturn found billions of dollars worth of resources diverted to the Oldsmobile division, a favorite of GM's old guard. Cars like the Aurora, that really should have been Saturns, were given to the moribund 100 year old brand in the hopes of making it more appealing to - wait for it - import buyers.
The multibillion-dollar effort failed, and in 2003 Oldsmobile was shut down... at a cost of additional billions.
Now, without Oldsmobile as an import-fighter, GM rediscovered Saturn. Billions more were poured into modern new cars.
But in 2009, just when Saturn was starting to turn the corner... General Motors ran out of billions and went bankrupt.
Roger Smith had had the vision to see that General Motors was headed toward an abyss. He possessed the intellegence to concoct a brilliant strategy to transform from within the way this entrenched and atrophied colossus did business. How different the story of General Motors in the twenty first century might have turned out had Roger Smith also been endowed with the leadership qualities, the communication skills, and the energy, to carry his vision to its conclusion.
For his trouble, the tenure of Roger Smith is remembered not with pride but ridicule. He will live in infamy as the chief object of derision of gadfly movie maker, Michael Moore. In his 1985 ducumatory, Roger and Me, the camera follows Mr. Moore as he hounds the hapless CEO, seeking answers to why a huge GM assembly plant in Flint, Michigan had been closed down, effectively shuttering the city with it.
Copyright@2018 by Mal Pearson